amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


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A great bunch

En francais

In the vineyards the grapes have had little respite from the heat, the extreme temperatures of Friday, June 28th may have eased but it has been a very hot week. There has been little rainfall this year in the region so the vines are having to dig deep into the soils for moisture. That is one reason why Jeff Coutelou does a very light raking of the soil in early summer, to create small ridges which will help moisture to be retained rather than evaporate.

Raked soils in Flower Power

Nonetheless, the risk is that without some rain the vines, unable to find moisture in the soil or air, will begin to use up its store of water and energy which should be going into the grapes.

At present that danger has not manifested into vine stress but, with no rain forecast, it is one weighing on Jeff’s mind. As one who refuses to irrigate his vines Jeff runs a risk, as he does through many aspects of organic agriculture, 2018’s mildew epidemic being the most recent example. Indeed as I toured the vines in the last few days there are some lovely bunches forming. The pea sized grapes of a fortnight ago have grown. As they continue to do so, rain would certainly help them to swell, the bunch will close up, the grapes rubbing up against each other to form the classic bunch we know from vendanges.

And, but of course, there is a risk at this stage too. As the bunch closes up any grape damage will be spread across the bunch. A lack of air inside the bunch will encourage any rot or disease there may be. The ver de la grappe moth might have lain eggs and these will form the caterpillar / worm (ver) which damages grapes especially in a bunch. However, let me not be too gloomy. The bunches are there, the vast majority in good health. It is a matter of vigilance.

A bunch of another sort brought a very happy day a couple of weeks ago. Cédric, who runs the website* vinsnaturels.fr, and some of his friends from Grenoble visited. A lunchtime visit said Jeff. A nine hour lunch it turned out to be!

Case filled with cold water to keeping bottles cool, Coutelou spirits and olive oil, new cuvées

We tasted lots of wines now on sale such as the Blanc and Grenache Mise De Printemps. However, it was the barrels tucked away and the older bottles which made this yet another special day. Tasting the 2018 blend of Maccabeu and Grenache Gris from different barrels and containers. A fortified Grenache Gris. Amazing bottles of the legendary Roberta 2003 and La Vigne Haute 2010.

Surprise after surprise, delight after delight. Accompanied by an unusual but very tasty barbecue, yes that is a wheelbarrow. Add in an amazing plateau of cheeses and it was a feast fit for a king.

So, great bunches all round. May they all stay healthy and prosper.

*also in English Deutsch Italiano Español


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As if burned with a blowtorch

Version en francais

Photo de la vidéo de France 3 sur Youtube

Sad to report extensive damage across the Occitanie region from Roussillon through the Aude, Hérault and Gard which took place last Friday, June 28th. A heatwave (canicule) had been widely forecast but the ferocity of the heat that day still took everybody by surprise. In the Gard a recorded temperature of 45.9c is the hottest ever recorded in France. I was driving back from Spain and in the early evening the temperature was showing at 44c from Perpignan to Béziers. Those temperatures are recorded in the shade, in full sun the vines were enduring searing heat, combined with strong, hot, southerly winds.

Some hot weather can be beneficial in drying up mildew for example but this was new ground. Reports began to filter through of the damage done to vines. Friends such as Bernard Isarn (Domaine Cadablès in Gabian) were reporting extensive damage, he was joined by others. Some reported losses up to 50% in some parcels.

Photo de Bernard Isarn

This would be difficult enough to accept but it is the fourth year in succession where the climate has dealt a blow to production. Mildew in 2018, drought in 2017, frost and hail in 2016 all brought economic and agricultural damage. 2019 had begun so well until recent days, many people I spoke to, including Bernard, had been excited by how well the vines were progressing. So, I can only imagine the heavy hearts of vignerons whose vines were burned ‘as if by a blowtorch’ .

The combination of heat and wind was the crucial factor, others played a part. Languedoc vines are long used to great heat, years such as 2003 were hot but never with this damage. One difference is that the heatwave was early in the growing season. The younger growth was less hardy, more susceptible. This might also explain why so many of those affected were organic producers. Vines grown with lots of nitrogen and nitrates are further advanced in their growing cycle, perhaps the organic vines were more vulnerable because they were relatively immature.

Another reason put forward is the use of sulphur treatments. This is one of the organic vigneron’s tools, from a toolbox smaller in scope than conventional producers. With oidium menacing last week many organic producers sprayed with sulphur to combat the fungus. Unfortunately the combination of sulphur and hot temperatures leads to burning. Jeff Coutelou resisted spraying last week because of the forecast, he is thankful for having made that decision.

Photo du domaine Matassa en Roussillon

However, these explanations are tentative, enquiries are going on. Bernard reported that vines damaged included those not sprayed for 20 days. Ill fortune must be a factor. One other curious feature is that many report that the vines most damaged were the traditional, local varieties such as Carignan, which might be expected to resist heat better.

Whatever the reasons, it is extremely sad for those affected and my sympathies go out to them all. Local producer Catherine Bernard published her heart felt thoughts and they are well worth your time to read. The climate is raising questions which we all need to address urgently, vignerons seem to be in the front line of the struggles ahead.


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Expert eye

Version francaise

I regularly tour the Coutelou vineyards, looking at the changes and growth, relishing the tranquillity and connection with nature, the vines, flora and fauna. Nonetheless, far more interesting is to tour with Jeff himself. His expert knowledge of his land and the vines adds so much. Jeff was a teacher for many years and I always learn a great deal from him.

Living soils of Rome

We began in my favourite vineyard, Rome. This parcel, surrounded by trees, is a haven for wildlife. The tall Grenache gobelet vines are 40 years old and more and Jeff explained how the soil in Rome is around 30-40cm deep, made up mostly of forest residue, for example rotted leaves. The soil is a rich humous and full of life. Lifting a clump revealed fungal threads, insects (look for the black bodies) and worms.

Syrah with its large leaves and bunches forming

On to Sainte Suzanne and its Syrah and Grenache, so much a part of le Vin Des Amis, a famous part of the Coutelou range. Flowering completed in the main, the Syrah more forward than other varieties as is usual. The bunches resemble peas. Huge leaves such as this Syrah and Muscat in Peilhan show how Mediterranean varieties protect their grapes from the fierce sun because of their size and thick, quilted texture.

Flowering on the right whilst Jeff indicates coulure

Disappointingly there was also evidence of coulure, here and in La Garrigue especially with Grenache, which flowers later. Flowering has lasted longer this year, making them more susceptible to coulure.

This happens when wind or rain damages the flowers and the fruit cannot set on the vine. A shower of unformed grapes fell into Jeff’s hand as he ran it across a bunch. The consequence is that the harvest will be good but not as big as hoped for, especially after last year’s mildew hit year.

Oidium on bunch

That disease was downy mildew, this year the greater threat is powdery mildew or oidium. As we toured the Carignan vineyard, Rec D’Oulette, Jeff immediately spotted the signs, I would likely not have seen it. Oidium usually attacks the leaf and stem, leaving a white, powdery residue. Here the oidium had attacked the bunch directly, leaving a grey tinge to the green pea-like grape. Encouraged by the alternation between hot days and cold nights which we have had recently oidium needs to be treated. Jeff uses sulphur mixed with clay which helps the sulphur to stick to the plant. So far the damage is limited and the weather has heated up which might help to dry out the disease. Certainly there was evidence of that, the black spots on these stems and leaves is evidence of that, see the photo below.

Another pest was seen too. This white, cottony substance on my hand is the cocoon of ver de la grappe, a moth which will lay eggs in the grapes and the larvae pierce the skins causing bacterial spoilage. Insecticides would be the conventional response but not for organic vignerons. Natural predators such as bats are the solution, one reason why Jeff has bat houses in the trees around the vines.

More trees have been planted, Nathan and Julien were tending the border of Peilhan vineyard where fruit trees such as this pear are beginning to grow and become established. In the vines things looked good, such as this Carignan Blanc, Piquepoul Gris and Muscat in Peilhan and the Mourvèdre in Segrairals.

A 3 hour tour revealed so much about the state of the vines this year. Things are set for a good quality harvest, though it is still early days. Coulure means that it will not be a bumper crop, oidium that there is much work to be done to tend the vines which Jeff nurtures so carefully.

Healthy vines

New plantings such as that next to Sainte Suzanne of Clairette and Maccabeu are signs of a healthy future too.

Plantation, Clairette right, Maccabeu left

No matter what some British politicians would tell you it is always good to listen to experts and this was no exception. The strapline of my blog says “learning about wines, vines and vignerons”, this was a morning which certainly helped me to achieve that goal thanks to Jeff and his expert eye.


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New moon

En francais

Delicate flowers, brown hoods which fall off the bunches

The weather continues to confound here in the Languedoc. A couple of days of sunshine and heat and then back to grey clouds, warmth and wind. And now we have humidity and a few short but heavy showers.

The vines have been in terrific health until now and they still are as I write on June 10th. The new moon was on June 3rd and that is a time when biodynamic producers start to get twitchy as they believe it can bring out disease. The alternation between heat and chilly nights with humidity certainly encourages oidium and there have been a few hints of it emerging, for example in the Maccabeu. Nothing too concerning yet but Jeff used an organic treatment last week to nip any danger in the bud.

A tour of the vines the day after the new moon showed what good condition they are in and how quickly they have grown.

Sainte Suzanne Grenache, growth in one week

It also showed how mistaken I was when I wrote recently about the end of flowering. In fact everything is a couple of weeks delayed due to the dry winter and spring so there were flowers in profusion. A week later flowering is done, there are a lot of bunches on the vines and it is still very promising but let’s hope this humidity disappears soon.

One point of interest, the new plantings in Rome. The thick material around the base of the vines is to deter weeds from competing with the young plants and also to preserve moisture in the soil for their benefit.

Meanwhile the radio show I mentioned recently was broadcast and the podcast is well worth a listen, not least for The Clash classic.


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Slipping back into the vines

https://amarchinthevines.org/2019-en-francais/P1040542

Back in the Coutelou vineyards. As I drive into them there’s a sense of never being away but also of anticipation – what’s new? That may sound strange as the vineyards don’t change too much year to year, yet every vintage is different. In 2018 the vines were already suffering from the widespread mildew following a wet Spring. This year the weather has been very different. A dry Winter and Spring  with cool, sunny weather has benefited the vines. They look as healthy as I can remember in the years I have been here.

Healthy Grenache leaves, left and débourrement in Rome

New plantings and grafts mean that there is always change in the vineyards, this year it has been mostly a case of replacing vines which had failed, some Cinsault, Clairette and Macabeu amongst others. It is time to let the rare and old grape variety plantations of 2018 mature and establish themselves.

New Clairette and Macabeu, Ste Suzanne’s vines in the background, right

However, one new plantation of note. A small parcel next to Sainte Suzanne has been too wet to work in for the last 2 years, it is now planted with Macabeu and Clairette so more white wine will be produced in future.

New vine; the plantation can be seen as the brownish patch on the left of the 2nd photo from La Garrigue’s Syrah vines

The dry year has also meant that Jeff has been able to lightly plough vineyards which have been too damp in recent years, Rome was given a light scratching for example. Nothing too serious that would upset the life in the soil, just enough to aerate.

Flower Power, Julien and Christian attching the vines to stakes

They really do look well. Flower Power has been lightly worked too, to allow the young vines there to thrive without so much competition from the grass. If you look at the photos you will see the neighbouring vineyards belonging to others, planted much more densely. Those vines are flourishing with their irrigation and fertilisers, almost uniform, dark green with the nitrogen they are fed. The Flower Power vines are shorter and more delicate for sure, they are growing at a natural pace, finding their own maturity slowly. Here, and in all the other vineyards, flowering is almost complete, the bunches are set (débourrement).

After last year’s much reduced harvest it would be good to have an abundant year, to restock the vats and barrels which have been emptied to make up shortfalls in wine and income. The signs are propitious, let us hope the northerly winds and sunshine continue to maintain the health of the vines and allow them to fulfil such a promising start.

One curiosity over the winter. In late 2018 artist Anthony Duchene wanted to create a display to highlight the effect of healthy soils. In many of the natural vineyards of the region underwear was buried. At Jeff’s a pair of underpants was buried in Rome vineyard. This Spring they were dug up and reveal the activity taking place in the soils by animal and microbial life. An unusual but effective demonstration. Duchene’s work is on display in Liège at the Yoko Uhoda Gallery.

And, of course, regular readers frequently ask how Icare is getting along. Coincidentally it was his summer haircut on Tuesday so you can see that he has been well prepared for the warmer weather. He is a happy dog.

It was a beautiful, sunny day as I toured around on the 21st May. Rome was vibrant with colour from broom and flowers, roses lined the vineyards in Peilhan and Rec D’Oulette. It was good to be back.


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The Douro

 

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I have had the good fortune to visit vineyard regions around the world. The Douro Valley, home of table wines and port wines was one I had always wanted to experience and, for my recent birthday my wife organised a visit. I shall come on to the table wines in the next post, port takes centre stage this time.

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The English had a large role in developing the port trade and vineyards having signed an exclusive trade deal for the wines with the country’s oldest ally, Portugal. To help preserve the wines on the bumpy river journey from the Douro valley to Porto and the sea journey to England alcohol was added to the wine. Port wine has long been a favourite here in the UK and for me personally. So, it was a true delight to finally get to see the famous vineyards and the port lodges of Porto.

We wandered around the riverbank on the other side from Porto in Vila Nova De Gaia where the most famous port houses have their bases. At Calem there was an excellent tour with high tech displays showing the various types of port and how they are produced.

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Quinta Da Noval is one of my favourite port producers and I enjoyed the tasting there of various types from white port to vintage via ruby and tawny. On to lunch at Graham’s on the hilltop with its excellent views over the river and its bridges.

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A splendid lunch it was too and dessert was accompanied by tawny port of 10 and 20 years age. The bottles were 4,5l (6 standard bottles) and we were told to help ourselves, a dangerous invitation. The 20 year old tawny was especially delicious, perhaps the best wine I had all week.

However, there are a number of smaller independent producers and it was good to try some of those too, I do like to get away from the big names. Wine bars such as Portologia and Capella Incomum served such wines as Quinta Seara d’Ordens and Quinta Infantado, just as good as the more famous producers.

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A day trip to the Douro valley itself with Douro First tours was the highlight however. A boat trip on the river, stunning viewpoints, an excellent lunch and tastings accompanied by an informative, knowledgeable and caring guide in Nuno. A full day, sadly with the worst weather of the week but that did not spoil the stunning scenery nor dull the respect I developed for these winemakers tending their vines on the near vertical slopes.

 

Note the green strips on the terrace with 3 rows of vines on each

The tastings were at Quinta do Beijo and Casa Dos Barros (also known as Vintage Theory)and reinforced the opinion that independent producers deserve a higher profile with port consumers. Joao Monteiro greeted us and took us round the cellars tasting the table wines and ports. Highlights included the concrete tanks where the grapes are still trodden by feet and the old barrels the biggest holding 19,000 litres, the oldest 170 years old!

The ports themselves were equally impressive, a lovely young tawny and especially an amazing white port of 1963, almost as old as me after that recent birthday. The white port gets darker with age because of oxidation so that it becomes a similar colour to the tawny ports which lighten in colour with age. Do Beijo had recently won a Gold Medal at The International Wine Challenge for its 40 year old tawny. It was magnificent, liquid sunshine which lingered in the mouth until lunch.

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1963 White port 

The tawny ports of Vintage Theory were very good too, the 20 year old my personal highlight. The 20 year old tawny wines have a good balance of fruity wine with the complexity of barrel ageing.

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This was also where we had lunch in a lovely restaurant.

The terracing and dry stone walls which make vine growing possible in this valley are something to behold. Narrow strips of land with just one or two rows of vines were common, the effort in doing vineyard work must be immense. The results are worth that effort and port is under appreciated around the world. There is a lot to learn, white port was my major discovery on the visit and I still don’t fully understand colheitas. It will be fun to learn though!


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One More Time

En francais

“They think it’s all over, it is now,” were the famous words of commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme when England scored their fourth goal to win the World Cup of 1966. Well to mix metaphors one more time, Jeff decided it was time to get the band back together after we had thought the vendanges were completed.

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Not again! I’m sleeping

There remained a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon that Jeff thought not to be worth collecting but the last couple of weeks they had ripened a bit more and there was enough to warrant one last pick on Tuesday 2nd October. The pickings were meagre, it took 7 or 8 pickers up to two hours to fill the 16 cases which are brought back to the cellar to be sorted again and then put in tank. Aching muscles and stuttering machinery protested a little at the reprise but the stainless steel tank in the photo was just about half filled by the end of the day. The grapes themselves were very good, Cabernet always gives small berries but they were healthy.

The juice went to Thierry for analysis as usual. A solid 14% potential alcohol, though lacking a little acidity. It tastes juicy and clean and I am sure will be used either for blending or in the spirits made for the Coutelou range.

Analyses old and new taking place

We went on to taste more of the tanks and the results are promising. The Syrah of La Garrigue is undoubtedly the star (even allowing for my bias towards this perennial favourite), the Carignan, Flower Power also very good. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a very long, fruity Grenache – the grape which had suffered most from this year’s dreadful mildew. Grapes are very hardy it would seem, helped by a skilful winemaker of course. That will not make up for the loss in yields this year, 50% would appear to be the figure. Sadly this might well bring price rises. We had another caviste at the cellar wanting to buy wine that day, the latest in a long line through the vendanges. Sadly, there is not enough to satisfy existing customers’ demand let alone new outlets.

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A lot more smaller tanks have been needed this year, a sign of low yields

it was good to have a day together again, the financial cost of picking was undoubtedly higher than usual but there is more wine in tank and hopefully that will offset some of this year’s hardships.

Traditional end of vendanges, the boss does some cleaning of the cases

and the workers are crowned with vines